The 27 October presidential election should bring political closure to twenty-five years of political upheaval, and can give Georgia what it aspires for. But there are some final tests yet.
Compared to previous elections in Georgia, the process of selecting a new president for the country on 27 October has proceeded without major problems. One week before the polls the main threat to the free expression of the will of the Georgian people seems to be apathy, rather than election fraud or manipulation.
Georgia’s political journey over the last twenty-five years has been tumultuous. The events on 9 April 1989, when Soviet OMON forces killed peaceful civilians on Rustaveli Avenue broke the unwritten accord between the Georgians and the Soviet leadership which had seen Georgia getting the best possible deal out of the Soviet system in return for political acquiescence. Ever since, Georgian politics has been a roller coaster of upheavals. Euphoria and disappointment alternated in regular short cycles, with wars, rebellion, revolution and repression added in for good measure. Yet this era of Georgian politics seems now to be coming to a close.
Georgia has had three presidents since it eventually regained its independence in December 1991 when the Soviet Union unceremoniously disintegrated. Most Georgians these days find it difficult to talk highly of any of them.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia embodied the spirit of euphoric nationalism that swept away Soviet power. Yet his short time in office is seen as a period of chaos, criminality and confusion. Gamsakhurdia was neither well suited nor well prepared for the job, yet Georgians elected him willingly and convincingly for what he represented.
Edward Shevardnadze, the old fox of the Caucasus and probably the Soviet politicians that did most to end the cold war was a pragmatist who understood Georgians well. He is credited to have brought stability and for having pulled Georgia back from the brink. Yet he is also identified with a period of stagnation and of laissez-faire politics of the worst kind. In the end he was swept away from power in a wave of public discontent
That same wave swept Mikheil Saakashvili into power after the bravado of the “Rose Revolution”. He had immense popularity to start with – even if the 95% vote that he claims to have polled in the 2004 election was inflated and exaggerated, and the first sign of bigger problems to come. Saakashvili was a reformer to start with, but having decided early on that reform was too difficult and too risky, he swapped to being a builder. A Machiavellian attitude that end justifies means was his undoing. The subtle but omnipresent police state that developed during his presidency remains a black spot on his record and the Georgian people will not forget this quickly. His party was thrashed so overwhelmingly and convincingly in the October 2012 election that he knew that there was no alternative but to bow to popular will, and to his credit he did so graciously. He has spent his last year in office uncomfortably co-habitating with a government with which he shared little in terms of either vision or methods. He says he will remain politically active but his moment has passed.
History will be kinder to these three leaders than their contemporaries and compatriots have been so far. In their own ways they all reflected time and circumstances they were living in. They all tried to do their very best for their country in the way they saw fit. They made many strategic mistakes on the way, but their options were often limited by circumstances beyond their control. They all contributed significantly to bring Georgia to the point where it is today: where its statehood is no longer questioned, where the process of state-building is now progressing satisfactorily, and where for the first time the country can look forward to a future as part of the European mainstream – a long–time aspiration of the Georgian people, and of the Georgian political and intellectual elite in particular.
The 27 October election is therefore in many ways not simply the end of one presidency and the start of another but the end of an era. If the election proceeds without problems Georgia would have shown the world that it has achieved a level of political maturity that truly make it deserving to be treated as an equal by the world democracies. The issue of NATO and EU membership in the future will at this point have to be considered in Western capitals much more seriously and with a much less patronising attitude than has been the case so far.
However over the next days there are still some obstacles on the way.
First the process on election-day, in terms of polling and counting, needs to be impeccable. Everything indicates that the current government is truly committed to this, but then in their oratory so have all the others before it. Old habits die hard and even if there is no master plan to execute election fraud, over-zealous local officials can mar the process unnecessarily.
Second apathy can be a serious problem. Low turnout can seriously put in question the legitimacy of the process, and worse, can incentivise last-minute fraud by panicky officials.
Finally a new element has been introduced in this election at the last moment. The favourite to win, the candidate of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Giorgi Margvelashvili, has said that if he does not win in the first round (by securing 50% of the vote) he will withdraw. In this he was following the advice of the current grand figure of Georgian politics, Bidhzina Ivanishvili. This is the sort of brinkmanship that Georgia needs to put behind it, and it is very unfortunate that Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili have resorted to it. If Ivanishvili himself was the candidate such a step may have been understandable, even if undesirable. Margvelashvili, a person who was until yesterday (and many say until today) a complete unknown, should have shown more humility. His decision has introduced an unnecessary uncertainty into the process. Going to a second round is a legitimate democratic practise aimed to ensure that whoever is elected has the support of the mass of the population. Democratic countries are used to it. If De Gaulle in 1965 could swallow his pride and go to a second round in the Presidential elections in France there is no reason why Margvelashvili should not do the same in Georgia if necessary in 2013.
However in many ways this election is about much more than who is going to be the new president of Georgia – especially since the constitutional amendments that go into effect concurrently will reduce the power of the office-holder significantly anyway.
It is about the next twenty-five years of Georgia politics.
It is about Georgia assuming its proper place amongst the countries of Europe.
All the ingredients are there for this to be the real turning point that Georgia has been waiting for.
This election is now all for Georgians to lose.
Prepared by the editorial team of Caucasus Elections Watch
photo caption: Georgians young and old ponder the implications of an election that should bring to an end twenty five years of political turmoil in their country’s modern history. Picture of a Georgian Dream Camapaign Rally in Tbilsi taken my Molly Corso (c) CEW